Category Archives: Voting


Are Those Worried about Third-Party Spoilers Ready to Consider Approval Voting Yet?

Consider a couple of basic facts about the presidential election.

First, Donald Trump won the primaries with around 45 percent of the vote—and that includes votes taken after he’d effectively secured the nomination. Through the primaries, Trump’s opponents destroyed each other by splitting similar constituencies, while Trump skated through with minority support.

Second, minor parties won more votes than Trump’s margin of victory in some key states, including Florida, as Eli Watkins reviews for CNN. Watkins thinks third parties may have cost Clinton the election, but he may be wrong about what voters otherwise would have done. (Update: Sasha Volokh thinks Gary Johnson helped Clinton in the end.)

If it’s true either that Trump would have lost the primaries against a single amalgam of his opponents, or that Hillary Clinton would have won various key states and thus the electoral college in a two-way race, then Trump owes his victory to America’s system of winner-take-all plurality voting.

The way we vote is not a law of nature. It can be changed. Continue reading

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump

The Political System is Rigged—But That’s Not Our Main Problem

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton each have their cheerleaders. Most of us, though, regard these candidates as horrid and this year’s presidential race as an “international embarrassment,” as Vincent Carroll puts it. How did we get here?

Part of the problem is that our political system really is substantially “rigged,” meaning that the rules are inherently unfair in certain ways. Continue reading


Cubs Victory Illustrates the Difference between Reasonable Rules and a Rigged System

As millions saw last night, the Chicago Cubs beat “the curse” and won their first World Series since 1908. Congratulations to the Cubs as well as to the Cleveland Indians, who despite their amazing performance come up a run short.

There’s an interesting lesson to be gleaned from this series about how the rules of the game affect the outcome and about the dangers of casting reasonable rules as “rigged.” Continue reading


Setting the Record Straight about Colorado’s Republican Caucus

“All Colorado Republicans [registered more than a month] could vote in precinct caucuses, which chose delegates to congressional and state conventions, who voted for national delegates.” That’s my (unabbreviated) Tweet summarizing the way that Colorado Republicans chose delegates to the national Republican Convention. I should know; as a Colorado Republican I participated in the caucuses.

But apparently, for some Trump supporters, my experience participating in the caucus process is no match for a Drudge headline claiming it never happened. As of the evening of April 10, Drudge claimed on its main page, “Fury as Colorado has no primary or caucus; Cruz celebrates voterless victory.”

So let’s set the facts straight, beginning with my own experiences with the caucus system. Continue reading

How You Can Stop Voting Naively and Start Voting Strategically

Some people are naive voters, their votes accomplish nothing, and, for them, voting is a complete waste of time. Many people are strategic voters at a gut level, but they don’t understand how their voting is strategic or how they might pursue more complex voting strategies. My goal here is to turn naive voters into strategic voters and to turn gut-level strategic voters into self-consciously strategic voters with greater political influence.

But why would I want to help make other voters, including my political opponents, more strategic in their voting? It’s not like I can publish my advice and hope that only my allies will read it. Aren’t I just encouraging both sides to up their games, resulting in no net gains? I think not.

A major problem with politics today is that egalitarian “eat the rich” primary voters largely drive the Democratic party, while theocratic primary voters largely drive the Republican party. That is, both parties are disproportionately driven by ideologies that most Americans do not share. I think that if more voters become more strategic, that will help diffuse political influence and improve both parties over time. Or so one can hope.

I’m writing this article  partly in response to feedback, much of it explosively angry, that I’ve received via email and social media regarding two of my recent articles about Ted Cruz.

Here’s the backstory in brief: I like many of Cruz’s policies and pronouncements, but I’m more than a little irritated with him for lurching hard toward theocratic conservatism. I’m so irritated over one particular incident (his dalliance with Kevin Swanson) that I declared I’ll vote for any Democrat over Cruz, unless Cruz apologizes.

Even though I wrote a follow-up piece explaining some of the reasoning behind my political strategy, various respondents continued to basically misunderstand what it is that I’m up to. A typical response amounted to (and I exaggerate only very slightly), “Oh my God! You mean you’d actually support the dastardly Marxist Islamofascist-loving Hillary Clinton, who will leave America in smoldering ashes, over the shining knight of reason and liberty Ted Cruz, who will lead America to renewed greatness? You are evil.”

I ruminated over how such respondents could be so dense as to totally misunderstand the nature and purpose of my political stance. Then it occurred to me: Such people have actually never thought seriously about political strategy, and they have no grasp of it. To the degree that they’re strategic voters, it’s by accident, not conscious design.

Obviously political strategy is an enormously complex topic, so here I want to narrow the discussion only to basic voting strategies. I want to discuss naive voting, which here I call “duty voting,” and five types of strategic voting.

Duty Voting

A naive voter looks at voting as a social duty. A duty voter will examine the candidates, pick a slate of candidates, quietly fill out the ballot, and consider the duty fulfilled—all without giving any thought to the impact of the vote.

A duty vote has no impact. Duty voting is a total waste of time, at least in the context of large-scale (national) elections in which one’s vote will almost certainly never impact the outcome of any election. (By contrast, individual votes actually have some realistic chance, however remote, of making a difference in very-competitive regional races.)

In all seriousness, duty voters would be better off staying home (or leaving their mailed ballots unopened) and doing something else. So let’s turn to the various types of strategic voting.

Social Pressure Voting

Most people, at some level, understand that their purpose in voting is not merely to cast a single ballot in a large-scale election. Rather, their purpose of voting is to mutually encourage their allies to vote, too, and thereby to achieve an outcome they favor. Such social pressure voting is the most widely practiced form of strategic voting.

To put the matter in terms of public choice economics, voting is “irrational” for the individual voter, because an individual vote will not sway the outcome of the election. However, if I and all of my allies sit home, and our opponents show up to vote, then we will all lose out. So voting becomes what the economists call a “free rider problem”—individual voters are tempted to free ride on the efforts of other voters, but, if all the voters of a given camp free ride, none of those voters get what they want. In these terms, social pressure voting is a way to overcome the free rider problem in voting.

As a matter of strategy, social pressure voting is very simple. It amounts basically to publicly making it known what political team you’re likely to support, publicly announcing that you’re going to vote, and suggesting that you might be irritated with those of your allies who don’t vote. This could be as simple has having a water-cooler discussion about the election or posting a remark on Facebook.

Social pressure voting is the most widely practiced form of strategic voting, and it’s important. It does not, however, exhaust the forms of strategic voting. Other forms of strategic voting can have even more impact in an election, for those who wish to pursue them.

Endorsement Voting

I suppose that the second-most common form of strategic voting is endorsement voting. Here the idea is that, not only do you encourage “your team” to go out and vote, you publicly articulate a case for voting for a particular candidate. This type of strategic voting often is more important during primaries, when many candidates with similar views vie for a chance to appear in the general election.

The purpose of endorsement voting, quite simply, is to try to persuade people sitting on the fence, whether they are other primary voters or swing voters in the general, to embrace your candidate of choice.

The public pronouncement is an essential element of endorsement voting. Whenever you promote a candidate on social media or among your friends, in the context of explaining your pending vote, you are practicing the strategy. Of course, you could endorse a candidate without voting at all, but the idea here is that, by endorsing a particular candidate and publicly declaring your intention to vote for that candidate, you help drum up support for the candidate in terms of voter turnout. (There are many other ways of supporting a candidate that I won’t discuss here.)

Lesser of Evils Voting

If you openly declare, “I’m voting for Candidate A over Candidate B, not because I like Candidate A but because I regard that candidate as somewhat less-bad than the other,” that is the essence of strategically voting for the lesser of evils.

Again, the public pronouncement is the key to this sort of strategy. Electorally, the outcome of actively endorsing a candidate, versus declaring you’re voting for the candidate only as the lesser of evils, is identical (and totally irrelevant, because your single vote doesn’t matter). The purpose is to put the candidate and that candidate’s party on notice that you’re not happy with your choices, and they better shape up in the future if they want your continued support.

NOTA Voting

Threatening to vote for “none of the above” (NOTA) rather than the candidate you’d normally be presumed to support is a very powerful political tool. Among Republicans, two groups routinely use this strategy to great effect: Religious conservatives and gun owners. Groups that advocate abortion bans routinely threaten candidates in this way. I’ve heard it plausibly argued that gun owners sitting home out of a sense of Republican betrayal has swung at least one presidential election (although Dave Kopel argues Bush the Elder still would have lost to Clinton, just not as badly).

The strategy of NOTA voting essentially communicates, “My candidate or party has betrayed me so badly that I’m willing to sit on the fence this cycle, even if the other candidate wins.” NOTA voting takes the long view: The goal is primarily to alter the course of one’s favored political party long term, not influence the current election.

Punishment Voting

NOTA voting is one method of punishing one’s candidate or party, but there’s an even more powerful method of punishment voting: Threatening to vote for the opposing candidate rather than merely not vote. If you want to call this the “nuclear option” of voting, that’s probably apt.

The electoral reasoning behind this is straight-forward. To create a simplified scenario, let’s assume there are one hundred voters in a particular race, and that the predicted outcome would be 52 votes for Candidate A and 48 votes for Candidate B. But then let’s say three of Candidate A’s supporters become very annoyed with something their candidate does or proposes. How do they get the candidate to shape up?

If they threaten merely not to vote, then Candidate A still wins, only by a narrower margin of 49 to 48. (Voting for a minor-party candidate yields the same numbers.) Candidate A, if he can predict this, might say, “I realize you three are angry, but so what? I’m still going to win, so screw you.” But if the three angry voters threaten to exercise the “nuclear option,” then Candidate A faces the real risk of losing the race by a margin of 49 to 51. What do you think Candidate A’s attitude will become with respect to those three voters, even though they constitute a tiny three percent of the electorate in this example? That’s pretty obvious.

Notice that punishment voting has nothing to do with “supporting” the opposing candidate, in the sense of expressing positive approval or moral sanction of that candidate. Punishment voting is essentially communicating to a candidate (and the candidate’s supporters), “Yes, I hate the opposing candidate, but I’m so pissed off at you over the matter at hand that I’m threatening to ‘go nuclear’ on your ass to try to get your attention.”

Punishment voting is an extreme and uncomfortable move, which is why most people never even consider it as a possibility, much less execute it. But I’m not most people, and I think that Cruz’s open pandering to theocratic conservatives completely merits the threat of punishment voting.

As with NOTA voting, punishment voting takes a long view. The idea is that, even if we (the punishers) end up throwing the upcoming election, we’re going to work toward the long-term improvement of our political candidates. Maybe a candidate we hate will win this time, but hopefully next time, and on into the future, we’ll get a candidate that we like.

Of course, there are two types of punishment voting, absolute and conditional. If you’re so upset with a candidate that there is no way that candidate could find redemption in your eyes, you might just want to announce a firm punishment vote. But if you still think there’s hope for your candidate, you might want to announce conditional punishment. That is, if the candidate shapes up, you will rescind your threat of voting for the opposing candidate. (At this point, that’s my position with respect to Cruz.)

I can understand if people want to criticize a threat of punishment voting in a given case: As noted, it’s an extreme move. But it does annoy me when people pretend that a punishment vote is something other than what it is. If you want to argue I’m wrong, great, but don’t be a complete idiot about it by ignoring the hard realities of strategic voting in our winner-take-all system.

At any rate, I sincerely hope that my allies, my critics, and my opponents all adopt more strategic voting, as I think that will make some headway toward improving the American political scene over time.


How Colorado’s Lax Voter Security Can Lead a Criminal Right to Your Doorstep

bigstock-computer-criminalIf someone is stalking you or seeking to do you harm, the state of Colorado practically hands the criminal your personal home address, if you are registered to vote.

A couple weeks ago my wife showed me how, with only a name, zip code, and date of birth, you can access your own—or anyone else’s—voter registration information, including home address. Obviously, these bits of information usually are trivially easy for anyone to pick up via quick internet searches. What’s more, Richard Coolidge from the Colorado Secretary of State’s office tells me that someone from New Hampshire requested the entire Colorado voting list and published it online (I have not otherwise verified this claim).

Now that a publication for which I write is preparing to republish the Charlie Hebdo covers, it occurred to me that I don’t want every jihadist in the world to have easy access to a Google map to my front doorstep. Several years ago, when I was writing on another matter, I received a very nasty death threat (perhaps better characterized as a death wish), to the effect that the person hoped for my flesh to be lashed from my bones. I set up a mail box (at a UPS store) intentionally to keep my home address hidden; apparently, that was for naught.

There are provisions in Colorado statutes for anyone who has “reason to believe” that he, or “a member of [his] immediate household, will be exposed to criminal harassment, or otherwise be in danger of bodily harm.” You can go to your local DMV, request a “voter confidentiality” form, and pay a $5 fee to process it. Coolidge tells me that, if you have a restraining order against someone or other type of “active case,” you can join an “address confidentiality program.”

I’m glad those safeguards exist. However, I do not believe they are adequate. First, hardly anyone knows about the existing security risk or the existing remedies for it. Second, by the time someone is threatened or at risk, it’s probably too late—his personal home address is already published online.

Right now, the default is for voters’ home addresses to be openly published. I think that’s wrong. I’m as big a believer as anyone of open government records; however, there is a huge difference between the records of a state agency and one’s personal, private information—the release of which could create a life-threatening security risk.

I’m not entirely sure what the legislature should do to fix the problem; Coolidge says “Secretary [of State Wayne] Williams will be working with the legislature to raise this important issue and identify more options for voters.” Offhand, one idea is to list a voter’s precinct, not his home address. Another is to require those who request voters’ personal information to provide their own information to the government and agree to restrict their use of the information.

I understand the need to protect against voter fraud. But I also understand the need not to expose at-risk individuals to unnecessary danger.

I shouldn’t have to endanger my life to exercise my right to vote, and neither should anyone else who may be the target of criminal stalking or plots. I feel like that’s precisely what I’ve done.  I hope the legislature fixes this problem before someone is maimed or murdered with the help of these records.

Libertarians Nearly Cost Colorado Republicans the State Senate; Approval Voting Would Solve

In a year when Republicans made large gains throughout much of the nation, Colorado Democrats nearly maintained control of state government—thanks in part to Libertarians. As it was, Republicans squeaked by with a single-seat advantage in the state senate, while losing the state house and the governor’s race.

The Libertarian almost certainly cost the Republicans a state senate seat from District 20, where Cheri Jahn beat Larry Queen by 33,303 to 32,922 votes—a difference of only 381 votes. Meanwhile, Libertarian Chris Heismann earned 4,968 votes. (I’m relying on “unofficial results” from the Colorado Secretary of State throughout.)

Of course, there’s no reason to think that everyone who voted Libertarian would otherwise vote Republican, but in this case it’s hard to believe that Jahn would have won except for the Libertarian on the ballot.

Meanwhile, in District 5, Democrat Kerry Donovan beat Republican Don Suppes by 27,044 to 25,981 votes, a difference of 1,063. The Libertarian earned 2,339 votes (so it’s less clear the candidate cost the Republican).

In District 19, Libertarian Gregg Miller arguably nearly cost Republican Laura Woods her narrow victory; Miller earned 3,638 votes, while Woods won by only 689 votes. (However, Woods, a supporter of abortion bans and so-called “personhood” legislation, alienated many liberty-minded voters, including me.)

In District 24, Republican Beth Martinez-Humenik probably would have lost if a Libertarian had been in the race; she beat Democrat Judy Solano by only 876 votes.

Remarkably, Libertarians did not cost Republicans any state-wide races. Republican Cory Gardner won the U.S. Senate seat (although he got less than 50 percent of the vote), and Republican Bob Beauprez lost by substantially more votes than the Libertarian received. (Each U.S. House victor received over 50 percent of the vote.)

Claims that Libertarians cost Republicans races are nothing new; they crop up every two years. As another example, this year Libertarian Robert Sarvis most likely cost Republican Ed Gillespie a U.S. Senate seat in Virginia. “Spoilers” are an inherent aspect of single-vote, winner-take-all elections with more than two candidates.

Is there any alternative? To date, Republicans have attempted, without much success, to persuade Libertarians to stay off the ballot. Then, after elections, Republicans berate Libertarians for “costing” them races. This inevitably leads to nasty exchanges between Republicans and Libertarians, with the end result that Libertarians become angrier than ever toward Republicans and resolve to keep running candidates. Some Libertarians even argue that their source of power and influence is their ability to cost Republicans some elections.

There is a better way, and it is approval voting. Approval voting simply allows voters to vote for more than one candidate. So, for example, someone could vote for both the Republican and the Libertarian (or the Democrat and the Libertarian, or whatever combination). Then the candidate with the most votes overall wins. (Total votes exceed total voters, because many voters cast more than one vote.) There are no rankings and no runoffs; it’s a very simple voting system to understand and to implement.

With approval voting, it might still be the case that some Republicans lose by a smaller margin that the Libertarian’s vote total. If so, Republicans could not complain that Libertarians “stole” an election, because voters had an opportunity to vote Republican as well, yet chose not to.

Another advantage to approval voting is that it would provide a better indicator for how much support the victor actually has. Currently, it is common for candidates to win with less than 50 percent of the vote. Under approval voting, winning with less than 50 percent would indicate widespread dissatisfaction with the victor.

Approval voting obviously would be good for Colorado Republicans. The GOP often faces Libertarian competition, whereas Democrats rarely face left-leaning minor candidates.

Approval voting also would be good for third parties, I think. Rather than regard Libertarians as dangerous competitors, Republicans would see an opportunity to woo Libertarian votes.

Approval voting likely would be bad for Colorado Democrats electorally, at least in the short run, but it’s hard to see how Democrats can in good conscience oppose a voting system that is more democratic in important ways. If it’s good that people are able to vote for one candidate, as Democrats incessantly claim, then is it not better if people are able to vote for more than one candidate in a race? And it remains possible that Democrats will face stiff competition from a third party—remember Ralph Nader in 2000.

My aim, of course, is not to maximize democracy (e.g., mob rule), but to maximize government’s protection of individual rights. But I think approval voting likely would be, on net, both more democratic and (marginally) more supportive of rights-respecting government. Why not implement it?


Would Gessler Have Won the GOP Primary with Approval Voting?

gesslerOn Tuesday Colorado Republicans selected Bob Beauprez to run for governor—again. Queue “both ways Bob,” queue the “war on women.” (I doubt the Democrats will make much of Beauprez’s 2007 support for an insurance mandate, or his 2000 support for anti-gun laws.) I predict that he will lose—again (this time to John Hickenlooper, the incumbent). (This is no courageous prediction; I don’t think any of the candidates would have been able to beat Hickenlooper, despite his mishandling of the gun issue. I could be wrong, of course; general antipathy toward Democrats this time around could swing the governor’s race.)

What’s interesting about the primary vote is that four strong candidates split the vote relatively evenly. With 98 percent of the votes reported, the Denver Post offers the following results:

  • Bob Beauprez: 30.3%
  • Tom Tancredo: 26.6%
  • Scott Gessler: 23.2%
  • Mike Kopp: 19.8%

In other words, fewer than a third of Colorado Republican primary voters, or a little over 111,000 people (in a state with a population of around 5.3 million people), cast a vote for Beauprez—hardly a popular uprising.

Consider what might have happened under approval voting. The basics of approval voting are straightforward: Each voter gets to vote for as many candidates as he or she “approves” of. The candidate with the most votes wins. For example, if I had voted in this primary under approval voting, I would have cast a vote for both Gessler and Tancredo (despite my deep disagreements with the latter).

Although it’s quite possible that Beauprez would have won under approval voting as well, I think there’s a good chance Gessler would have won.

Here’s my reasoning. Beauprez is the milquetoast, establishment candidate, and I think a lot of people voted for him just because he’s tall and grandfatherly, he has congressional experience, and he’s not as ornery as Gessler (a quality of Gessler’s I find appealing) or as weighed down by baggage as Tancredo. (Kopp was never a leading candidate, despite his incessant YouTube ads.) I think that, under approval voting, many people who voted for Beauprez also would have voted for Gessler. I think that many people who voted for Tancredo also would have voted for Kopp, and vice versa, but that many people who voted for those candidates also would have voted for Gessler as their second choice.  And I think that a disproportionate number of people who voted for Gessler would have voted for a single candidate. In this scenario, Gessler may well have pulled ahead.

Of course, there’s no way to know for sure. The only thing we can know for sure at this point is that fewer than a third of Republican voters cast a vote for the Republican nominee for governor, and that doesn’t give me much confidence that the outcome accurately reflects voters’ preferences.

Those who have a different guess as to what the outcome would have been under approval voting are welcome to explain their reasoning in the comments.

Incidentally, Mike Dunafon is also running for governor, as an independent (and I may well vote for him), and there’s also a Libertarian in the race. Although Hick might get more than half of the total votes, he may well win with Beauprez and Dunafon (and the Libertarian) combined earning more than half the votes. If that happens, I will take the opportunity to write yet another post about the benefits of approval voting.

Westminster Should Consider Approval Voting

I read in the January 25 Westsider that the Westminster City Council is considering eliminating run-off elections for mayor:

If the top candidate does not receive 40 percent [under the current system], the top two candidates face off against each other during a run-off election. This process requires a second election, costing about $100,000. . . . Resident Tim Kauffman told council [at a January 14 meeting] the run-off election is important because the mayor position needs widespread community support.

The council will decide the measure to eliminate the run-off election on January 28, the paper reports.

But the city could avoid both problems—a costly run-off and a low-popularity mayor—simply by instituting approval voting, a process I wrote about a couple years ago.

Here’s how it would work. For the mayor’s election, voters would see all the candidates’ names on the ballot. Voters could vote for one or more of these candidates—as many as they “approved” of. Then the candidate with the highest vote total wins.

This guarantees that the winner has broad support, yet it saves the cost and hassle of a run-off election. What’s not to like?

New Group Seeks Voter Integrity

At Monday’s Liberty On the Rocks Flatirons event, Jeff Kelly discussed his new group, “Colorado Voter Protection.”

Kelly said his group’s goals are three-fold: first, to clean up the voter rolls; second, to “recruit and deploy honest, trained poll watchers”; and, third, to prevent voter fraud.

Regarding that last point, Kelly said he’d like to see legislation requiring the verification of citizenship, minimizing mailed ballots, and requiring voter identification.

Gessler Addresses Anonymous, Verifiable Voting

Secretary of State Scott Gessler discussed the standards of anonymous, verifiable voting when I interviewed him at the Independence Institute’s annual banquet. He said that, while current practices are “solid,” potential improvements in technology might further improve the system.

For additional videos from the II’s banquet, see also:

Kopel: ObamaCare Mandates Unconstitutional

Independence Institute Banquet

Why Voting Integrity Requires Proof Positive

Recently I wrote, “Mailing out ballots to inactive voters is an open invitation to voter fraud.”

This prompted leftist gadfly Alan Franklin to reply in a series of Twitter posts, “[I]f mailing ballots to inactives is ‘an open invitation to voter fraud,’ I assume you have… evidence of that? … Because if you have no evidence… you’re just another clown using baseless scare tactics. You know that, right?” He further claimed that I’m using “baseless scare tactics to stop ballots from going to voters” and “[t]echnicalities to suppress voting.”

This is a serious topic that deserves serious consideration (as opposed to Franklin’s ad hominem attacks).

The principle involved here is that the onus of proof lies on the one making an assertion. So if someone were to falsely accuse Franklin of theft, he could sensibly reply, “You have no evidence that I’ve committed theft; therefore, your accusation is groundless.”

Does a voting system likewise require positive proof of fraud before that system may be declared unsound and prone to fraud? No. The difference is that voting is the positive evidence required for an election result, and that positive evidence must be collected and presented according to reasonable standards of integrity.

To return to the example of falsely accusing someone of theft, imagine the following discussion:

Ben: “You are a thief”
Alan “No, I’m not. You have no evidence of that, and you are lying.”
Ben: “But you have no evidence that I’m lying, so therefore you are a thief!”

The problem is that Ben bears the burden of proving that Alan is a thief. Ben cannot throw the burden of proof back onto Alan.

Likewise, the voting system bears of burden of proving which candidate (or side) earned the specified number of votes. One cannot reasonably accept just any system of voting based on the claim, “Well, you have no evidence there’s anything wrong with this system.” Voting requires positive evidence that it yields accurate results.

Imagine some different scenarios that illustrate this principle.

In Country P, the dictator says, “I am the rightful ruler of this country, because the people support me!” If a critic were to answer, “There’s no good reason to think the people support you; why not throw the question up for a fair and open election?” What we we say if the dictator answered, “I know my people, and I know they support me. You have no evidence that there’s anything fraudulent about my claim, you clown!”

But let’s say we could persuade the dictator that an actual vote by the reasonably qualified electorate would better determine which leader has the majority’s support. The dictator says, “I have collected all the ballots, and I have counted them myself, and I am the clear winner.” If the critic were to reply, “It’s not good enough for you to count the ballots yourself, because you have a strong incentive to miscount or ‘lose’ the ballots you don’t like. Therefore, the ballots must be counted in an open and verifiable way.” Again we would not be persuaded if the dictator replied, “You have no evidence that my vote count is flawed, you clown!”

Let’s switch the scenario to something more like our actual system. Suppose the Secretary of State issued the following proclamation: “I am standing up to the opposition’s voter suppression machine! I want to ensure that every qualified voter has an opportunity to cast a ballot. Therefore, I am mailing ten copies of the ballot to every residential address in Colorado, to ensure there are plenty of ballots to go around to all qualified voters. Moreover, people can also walk into my office, without any identification (because demanding ID would make me part of the voter suppression machine!), and request all the extra ballots they may need for themselves and others they know who are qualified voters.”

A critic might argue, “But, Secretary, such a system would be an open invitation to fraud!” What would we think of a Secretary who answered, “You have no evidence that such a system would result in fraud, you clown!” It would quickly become clear which party more closely resembles a clown.

A voting system requires positive proof that only qualified voters cast ballots, and that each voter casts only one ballot per election. You can’t just mail out ballots to everybody in the state. You can’t just let everybody wander in off the streets to vote, without identification.

Mailing ballots to inactive voters clearly fails the test of voting integrity. Often voters become inactive because they move out of state. Mailing ballots to those old addresses, absent any additional evidence that the voter actually lives there, is just asking for fraud. Setting up a system of voting that easily allows fraud is stupid and contrary to the very purpose of voting.

(Remember that inactive voters easily can reactivate themselves.)

Indeed, I worry that the entire strategy of mailing out ballots invites fraud. How many elderly voters get a little “help” from their activist grandchildren? How many people cast ballots that aren’t actually theirs? We do not know. It is impossible to know. And the absence of proof of voting integrity is the problem.

If we are going to maintain the system of mailed ballots, at least that system must include basic safeguards to prevent the worst and most obvious invitations to fraud.

Far better is to return to the polling place. (Note that there could even be a roving polling facility for the physically incapacitated.) Then voters can show their ID at the door. It’s clear that one voter casts one vote by his or her choice. That provides positive proof that the election is fair. Would that result in fewer people voting? Probably. But if you can’t be bothered to put in the minimal effort required to ensure voting integrity, seriously do you have any businesses helping to determine the future of our civilization?

Left Targets Gessler for Protecting Voting Integrity

Mailing out ballots to inactive voters is an open invitation to voter fraud. There’s no telling who’s going to receive and submit the ballot.

Therefore, Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler sensibly told Denver and Pueblo Counties that they should follow Colorado law and not mail ballots to inactive voters.

In response to Gessler’s protection of voting integrity, the left has waged a full-scale smear campaign against him, accusing him of racism and disenfranchisement. This is a major leftist strategy for the 2012 elections: smear all Republicans, conservatives, Tea Partiers, and free-market activists as racists, in order to raise sympathy support for Obama. It is a nasty, mean-spirited, intellectually dishonest tactic. If you want to understand why the left does this, read the article I coauthored on Saul Alinsky and Obama.

One basic issue is how an “inactive” voter can become “reactivated.” It turns out it’s trivially easy.

I called Andrew Cole about this; he is a spokesman for Gessler’s office.(Michael Sandoval has also written a bit about this issue.)

Cole said, “To become inactive, you have to have missed a general election, not responded to at least one follow-up postcard from your county clerk, and not voted in any subsequent elections such as a municipal election.”

So how does an inactive voter reactivate? Cole explained, “You can physically visit your clerk’s office, you can go to and with a state ID card activate your status online, and you could also write a letter to your clerk, but you’d have to have a signature to verify who you were.”

In addition, a previously inactive voter can get a ballot from the clerk directly “up until and including election day.”

So this is pretty simple: if you have not voted in a recent election, and if you have not bothered to reply to your clerk’s postcard, you can easily reactivate yourself online or by visiting or writing your clerk. Surely that’s not too much to ask of those determining the future of the free world.

While he was on the phone, I also asked Cole about the controversy surrounding military voters.

Cole said that issue arose in Pueblo County under clerk Bo Ortiz. Cole said Ortiz asked the Secretary of State’s office about the matter only this week.

According to Cole, Gessler’s office told Ortiz that he “can’t mail ballots to inactive voters.” However, he “should have resolved this issue weeks ago.” Cole said there are 80 inactive military voters listed in Pueblo County, and Ortiz has email contacts for 64 of them. In Cole’s words, Gessler’s office told Ortiz’s office this week, “You should immediately email all 64” with known emails and send postcards to the rest. Moreover, Ortiz “should have done that weeks ago.”

Cole summarized, “We’re asking Peublo County to follow the law, just like we’re asking Denver to follow the law.”

Apparently following the law is not a concept the left easily wraps its collective head around. Instead, the left would rather play the politics of smear and character assassination.

Denver Mayor Race Illustrates Benefits of Approval Voting

As of this writing, the top four candidates in the Denver race for mayor show the following vote totals:

Chris Romer: 28.5%
Michael Hancock: 27.1%
James Mejia: 25.7%
Doug Linkhart: 9.4%

The Denver Post reports, “If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote in the May 3 election, the top two vote-getters advance to a June 7 runoff.”

But if you think about it, that’s a pretty foolish way to run an election. For example, what if Linkhart’s voters prefer Mejia over the other two? Too bad: Mejia is out (assuming the percentages hold). Or what if the voters of either Romer or Hancock far preferred Mejia over the alternative? Again, the outcome will be that a less-favored candidate will win anyway.

In addition, holding a runoff vote costs taxpayers more money (and taxes their patience as well).

The way to solve both problems — to pick the most-favored candidate and to do it with a single vote — is to institute approval voting. The basic idea is that voters can cast more than one vote. For instance, you could vote for Romer only, Linkhart and Romer, Romer and Hancock, or whatever other combination of candidates you think you could live with.

As it stands, chances are pretty good that the next Denver mayor will not be the candidate with the most support among the voters, though we’ll never really know. Even if the results turn out “right” in this case, inevitably the less-favored candidate will win in certain other races. I can think of lots of good reasons to institute approval voting, and no good reason not to.


Anonymous commented May 4, 2011 at 9:20 AM
Great post.

Anonymous commented May 6, 2011 at 6:04 PM
Why not prioritize by a 1 – 2 – 3 – 4? And maybe a NOTA?

Ari commented May 6, 2011 at 6:16 PM
One important reason not to let voters rank candidates is that it would be hard to process. If the numbers were hand-written, that would inevitably lead to disputes about the intended meaning of the handwriting. Plus, what if a voter did something like assign two #1s? A digital system also would be complicated. I suppose you could do it in waves: “Who is your first choice candidate, if any?” Then, of those remaining, “Who is your second choice candidate, if any?” And so on.

There’s another potentially important problem with rank (or instant-runoff) voting: a candidate who is broadly liked, who is everybody’s first or second choice, can get eliminated in the first round. I explain this here:

Atwood Pitches Approval Voting

Frank Atwood promoted “approval voting” at a recent Liberty On the Rocks event:

While I was skeptical of approval voting at first, Atwood convinced me that it’s a good idea — even better than the “instant runoff voting” I’ve previously praised.

What is approval voting? You the voter can vote for any number of candidates on the ballot for a given position. For example, in the last gubernatorial race, you could have voted for both Dan Maes and Tom Tancredo, rather than just one of those candidates.

Now, in fact, John Hickenlooper won more votes than Maes and Tancredo combined, so it’s hard to claim that either Maes or Tancredo “spoiled” the race for the other candidate. (Democrat Hickenlooper won 50.7 percent of the vote, lackluster Republican Maes won only 11.1 percent of the vote, and third-party Tancredo won 36.7 percent of the vote.) But let’s consider a realistic possibility of a third-party conservative “spoiling” the race for the Republican or a Green candidate “spoiling” the race for the Democrat, meaning that if the minor-party candidate were not in the race, enough votes would go to the major-party candidate to make the difference.

In such cases, approval voting would allow a voter to approve both a major and a minor party candidate. Let’s consider a hypothetical three-way race with 100 voters under the two scenarios:

Chickenpooper gets 48 votes.
Tancledo gets 38 votes.
Maze gets 14 votes.

Under the “winner take all” voting we currently use, Chickenpooper (who we’ll assume is the left-leaning candidate) is the winner.

Chickenpooper gets 48 votes.
Tancledo gets 49 votes.
Maze gets 25 votes.

In this scenario some voters are voting for both Tancledo and Maze (so the total number of votes cast exceeds 100), and Tancledo emerges victorious. In this case, whereas Maze otherwise would have “spoiled” the election for Tancledo, under approval voting people can vote for Maze and still allow Tancledo to win.

Of course, in the real recent election, many people thought Maes was a complete joke, so some might have preferred both Hickenlooper and Tancredo over Maes and voted accordingly.

I favor approval voting because it allows minor-party participation without creating the risk of “spoiled” elections.

Why do I now think approval voting is better than instant runoff voting? Approval voting is both easier to implement and less prone to quirks.

Under instant runoff voting, a voter may rank candidates. For example, a voter could have picked Maes first and Tancredo second. Then, assuming Maes again came in third, all the votes that ranked Maes first and Tancredo second would go to Tancredo.

But think about ranking candidates in the voting booth. On a paper ballot, one would either have to write in numbers for the rankings or mark a candidate for the same race in successive votes. Electronic voting would require successive votes. But this process would confuse a lot of voters. For example, a voter may not realize that a second-place vote is not required.

Approval voting is a lot easier to set up. A voter simply marks a bubble (or the equivalent) for as many candidates as desired. It’s easy to understand and easy to implement.

It is true that any system of voting is subject to possible quirks; today’s quite pronounced quirk is that a minor-party candidate can “spoil” a race. Either instant runoff voting or approval voting would be less quirky. But I think approval voting would be best of all.

The Wikipedia entry on instant runoff voting suggests a problem which I’ll illustrate with the following scenario:

Suppose Lefty Lou is a fire-breathing leftist who excites his base but genuinely frightens much of the citizenry; for 34 percent of voters Lou is the first choice candidate. Suppose Righty Rick is a social conservative and the first choice of 35 percent of voters. And suppose Centrist Cal, a war hero and former NFL quarterback, is liked by pretty much everybody but the first choice of only 31 percent. Cal is the clear second choice for everybody who more strongly prefers one of the other two candidates. Let’s say that, due to imprecise polling, every poll shows the candidates within the margin of error, so voters have little idea who will actually win.

If voters simply voted their first choice under a winner take all system, Rick would win. But of course people can vote strategically under a winner take all system. Cal can argue, “Look, I know many of you are tempted to vote for Lou or Rick, but if you do that, you’ll risk putting your least-favored candidate in office. So vote for me!” And such an appeal may very well work.

But consider what happens under instant runoff voting. Assuming people vote their preferences, Cal is eliminated in the first round, throwing the election to Rick, despite the fact that, for 100 percent of voters, Cal is either the first or second choice. That seems like a bad outcome.

Under approval voting, Cal would easily emerge as the victor.

Nor am I persuaded by the critics of approval voting. For example, FairVote offers the following scenario:

To illustrate how approval voting violates majority rule, consider a primary with 100 voters and two candidates liked by all voters. 99 voters choose to approve of both candidates even though slightly preferring the first candidate to the second. The 100th voter is a tactical voter and chooses to support only the second candidate. As a result, the second candidate wins by one vote, even though 99% of voters prefer the first candidate.

The first problem with this example is that it is totally unrealistic. In a race with only two candidates, most voters would pick between the two based on their preferences. If someone were truly ambivalent between two candidates, voting for neither would have the same effect as voting for both. If 99 voters truly preferred the first candidate, many or most of them would vote that way. Does this involve a certain amount of strategy? Yes. But every system of voting does. The difference is that approval voting is more likely to generate a winner most voters can live with.

Another significant problem with the example is that obviously the 100th voter prefers the second candidate. Let’s say 99 voters barely prefer the first candidate to the second, and therefore vote for both candidates, not really caring which one wins. But one voter truly loathes the first candidate and therefore votes only for the second. Why should the very strong preferences of the one voter not outweigh the nearly-nonexistent preferences of the 99? But again this scenario is so implausible that we can safely ignore it.

Of course, if every race had only two candidates, a winner take all system would be fine (and a voter could approve of neither candidate simply by not voting in that race). The entire point of approval voting is to handle races with more than two candidates and thereby prevent scenarios of “spoiled” races.

Frank Atwood is right: Colorado should adopt approval voting.

Time for Real Choices at the Ballot Box

The following article by Linn and Ari Armstrong originally was published November 12 by Grand Junction Free Press.

If you think our Senate race was exciting — and we were surprised that Ken Buck lost despite his series of gaffes and oddball positions — just consider the drama in Alaska.

Lisa Murkowski held the Senate seat as a Republican, yet Joe Miller beat her in the primary. So Murkowski launched a write-in campaign, and the election remained under review as we submitted this column.

A November 3 AP story by Becky Bohrer explains the scope of the problem. Murkowski “was among 160 qualified candidates,” and “write-ins held 41 percent of the vote with 99 percent of precincts reporting,” compared to Miller’s 34 percent.

And consider this bizarre twist: Lt. Gov. Craig Campbell told the AP “that since Miller’s name isn’t on the official list of write-in candidates, any ballots with ‘Joe Miller’ written in won’t be credited to” Miller. Campbell changed his tune the next day, and a follow-up AP story reported that write-ins for “Joe Miller” would count for Miller, after all.

The Alaska Senate election is a mess. But nobody ever promised that representative government would be easy. If we want tidy and easy then we should have a king or a dictator.

Even before the Seventeenth Amendment passed in 1913, changing election of Senators from state legislatures to the popular vote, the legislatures themselves were popularly elected. Members of the House always faced a popular vote.

Some years ago your senior author Linn lived in New Mexico and got involved in another important write-in campaign, this one for Joe Skeen.

Politics in New Mexico makes politics in Colorado and Alaska seem calm and peaceful. Many voters live on reservations, which largely retain sovereignty. Spanish culture remains strong in parts of New Mexico, and in the 1960s and 70s land grants protected by old U.S treaty fell under heated dispute.

Quite a few people from New York and New Jersey settled towns like Rio Rancho. Occasionally their friends and relatives from back home would ask if they used American money or had to exchange dollars for pesos. Those friends would have to be reminded that parts of New Mexico were culturally vibrant long before the British colonies took off.

Party lines often didn’t mean as much in New Mexico. Republicans often worked with Democrats. A lot of people were what Coloradans might think of as “Texas Democrats” — fiscal conservatives who would make some of the local Mesa County “conservatives” seem like flaming liberals.

Wikipedia offers a good summary of Skeen’s write-in campaign for Congress: “Throughout the 1970s, five-term Democratic Congressman Harold Runnels had been so popular that the GOP didn’t even put up a candidate against him in 1978 or 1980. Then, on August 5, 1980, Runnels died of cancer at the age of fifty-six. The state attorney general, a Democrat, announced that the Democrats could replace Runnels on the ballot but that it was too late for the Republicans to [add a candidate]. Republicans were outraged and rallied behind a write-in effort by Skeen, while the Democrats selected Governor Bruce King’s nephew, David King, over Runnels’ widow, Dorothy Runnels.”

Those critical of Governor King called his political move “nephewism” rather than nepotism.

After Dorothy Runnels launched her own write-in campaign, Skeen won the split vote with 38 percent of the total. Wikipedia adds that Skeen, buoyed by the popularity of Ronald Reagan, “was only the third person in U.S. history to be elected to Congress as a write-in candidate.” He served until announcing his retirement in 2002.

For those who fought for Skeen, this was a joyous and triumphant victory.

This year Colorado ballots offered the ability to write in candidates only for a few offices, and then only among officially recognized candidates. In many races voters could “choose” only a single candidate.

Statute 1-4-1102 specifies that an affidavit for a write-in candidate must be filed “by the close of business on the seventieth day before any other election” besides a primary. That’s ridiculous. What if an illness, death, or major scandal occurs within that time? What if, for instance, the Republican candidate for governor had imploded closer to the election?

On November 3, Lynn Bartels of the Denver Post reported that Kathleen Curry, a write-in candidate for House District 61 who previously held the seat as a Democrat, challenged a preliminary finding that she came in second. She claimed that voters who wrote in her name but didn’t check the nearby box would put her ahead if properly counted.

If we’re serious about letting voters select the candidates of their choice, we will let people easily file as write-in candidates right up to the election. And we will ensure those votes are properly tallied, even if it takes longer. Do we want speed and convenience, or do we want to let people vote their conscience?